“I just get stuff done”: Katy B on working with women, living in London, and starting a book club

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Helen Bownass
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With a third album and a slew of summer festival appearances, Katy B’s not letting anything stand in her way. Stylist sits down with music’s most down-to-earth star to find out how she does it

Words: Helen Bownass
Photography: Katherine Rose

Katy B is a walking paradox. An urban-living Peckham girl who contemplates living in the countryside. A morning yoga, night-time Brixton raving kind. Someone who moves effortlessly between working in the Rinse FM studios – an edgy former pirate radio station that made the careers of artists including Dizzee Rascal and Wiley – and members’ club Shoreditch House, our meeting place. A woman who references grime artist Stormzy as easily as she does Radio 4. An artist that sits somewhere magical between the underground and the mainstream. This 26-year-old singer is a thoroughly modern millennial.

We’re here this afternoon, drinking breakfast tea – she was out last night so isn’t ready for anything alcoholic yet – to talk about Honey. It’s her third self-written album, each track a collaboration with one of a collection of so-now artists and producers including Major Lazer, Craig David and Diplo, proving her huge power as both curator and artist. The magic of Katy has always been her ability to reflect the modern dance floor. She takes sounds from grime – a genre rather lacking in female voices – house, R&B, dubstep and electro and creates her own unique party with lyrics that sum up what it means to be young (falling in and out of love, going out then having a hangover so you can’t go to Ikea the next day).

Katy – who grew up in Peckham with a liberal family who turned a blind eye to her trips to drum and bass clubs – emerged on the music scene five years ago. A graduate of The Brit school, her debut Mercury-nominated album, On A Mission, was released in 2011 and the follow-up Little Red debuted at number one in 2014. Life since then hasn’t always been easy. Critical success aside, in September 2014, Katy’s brother Andrew died 18 months after suffering a brain injury. But one of the ways she got through it was by using music as an escape, making this album one that we need just as much as she does…

Three albums in, does the pressure of releasing something new dissipate?
It’s nice pressure actually, because the first album, there was no pressure at all, then the second album, there was quite a bit of pressure and then by the third you’re just like, ‘whatever’.

You’re really open in your songs. Does it take lot for you to give that much?
With this album I haven’t really written about events that have happened over the last couple of years because it is so raw. I don’t think I could be doing what I do and be singing about my brother. It’s just too much. For me it’s about being able to hang onto something that is a passion. This album is my thing to get me through it. When something that sh*t happens to someone you love or a part of your family, it’s really easy to think ‘What’s the point of everything?’ This album is my escapism.

That makes sense…
Yeah and I think on the next album I’ll be able to tackle it with a bit more of a level head and a bit more of a distance.

You worked with three different women on the album, was that important?
I love hanging out with girls and I’m very pro-female in the industry but it’s not necessarily something that I think about on a day-to-day basis because I’ve never been treated any differently.

Why do you think you’ve had that experience? Especially when the music industry you’ve grown up in is quite heavily male dominated?
I’m from a big family of boys and I always went to Cubs and played football so I’m used to that world. And I think it’s from growing up in that scene and making sure that the place where I go to create and make music is somewhere I know I can be myself. One of my managers is a woman who is incredibly creative and confident in herself. She has that idea of ‘Why wouldn’t you be able to do it?  Why would you question it?’ I love that.

Have you always been strong-minded yourself?
I’ve always known what I enjoy. When I was little I said, “Can I learn the piano?” and mum would work an extra day to get me piano lessons. She’d be like, “Look I’m working six days so you better practise,” so I’d always be like, sh*t, I need to work hard. 

Were you aware when you were growing up that there were things that perhaps you didn’t have?
Yeah, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter and that’s why I never feel like I want to do something to pay a bill or to get those shoes. All I’ve ever wanted was to just do music.

The first track on your album Honey is soulful and sultry, was there a motive to do a song like that?
I like music to be sexy – that’s something I’m really passionate about. I grew up on Faith Evans and Mary J Blige and Jill Scott. People see a woman being sexy as a negative thing but being sexy and feeling sexy is amazing. It’s about owning it, about being in control, not vulnerable.

Do you think there’s enough diversity in music – whether that’s in gender, race, sexuality…?
I would like to think so. The great thing about the world where I come from is we’ve never really waited for anything; we’ve just done it. When I made my first album, I wasn’t signed, I wasn’t anything. I’m from a world where people just get sh*t done. You want to do something, just go and do it.

You’ve always been part of the grime scene. It’s a genre that’s really exploded this year, can you see why?
I think it’s that thing that we were bubbling underground for so long. Everything goes in waves. I think it’s like the punk music of our generation. It’s something people make themselves, you can’t hold it down.

How do you make sure you stay relevant?
I love going out and I love raving. I was out at the weekend with my friends and we love it. None of us have settled down yet or had kids. The other day my friend asked: “What are you up to?” and I was like, “Oh I’m just jamming with my friend” and he replied, “No-one says jamming any more Katy”. And I thought, “Oh my god I’m using vintage slang, I’m not down with the kids any more”.

What riles you and your friends?
You know what I think is annoying? That everything is online now. I feel like sometimes it’s my job to live my life online rather than my real life. It’s important as well though I think.... People are looking for news, instantly. There’s no ‘do it later’. I feel jealous of people from the Sixties [laughs]; they were just living their 20s and not having to worry about that stuff.

A big concern right now is how young people are getting priced out of London as they can’t afford to live there. Is that something that bothers you?
Yes! Basically you’ve got to have no joy in your life and stay in if you ever want to think about buying a place. Everyone I know has had help from their parents and if you can’t do that I don’t know what you’d do.

Are you in any way political?
A little bit, I know I’m getting older because I’m getting more into politics. When I listen to the radio I want to listen to LBC and Radio 4 – I love Woman’s Hour. Sometimes I don’t want music, I want a conversation.

Do you have any thoughts on the EU referendum?
No, I wish I did. I keep listening to people’s arguments and thinking, ‘Oh that’s interesting’, but I forget I’m one of the people who will be voting. I will vote but I’ll leave [my decision] to the last minute.

You’ve grown up in London, what do you love about it?
There’s always something to do, but sometimes it gets overwhelming, you get proper FOMO. Growing up in London and growing up with so many different types of people makes you realise that everyone is different but we’re all trying to get along and we all have the same wants.

Could you ever live elsewhere?
Growing up, I was like, “I’m going to have a farm and grow my own veg and live the good life,” but now when I go anywhere for two weeks I’m dying to get back here. I have a romantic idea of living in the countryside.

You once said you couldn’t be creative if you’re overworked, do you feel like you’ve found that balance?
Definitely. I used to feel guilty not working. But now I’ve realised that being able to not use my voice, recording all day, getting to the point where you can’t do your job properly, you need to take a step back. I love yoga and I recently did a meditation course at the London Buddhist Centre – although I need to practise. 

Are you spiritual?
I guess so. I remember reading The Colour Purple at school. In that, Alice Walker believes that the trees are God and nature is God and I remember thinking, ‘That’s what I am’.

Do you read much now?
I tried to start a book club, we’ve only managed to do one book – Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Now we’re doing To Kill A Mockingbird but we haven’t really finished it so it’s been dragging on. It’s just getting everyone together, isn’t it?

What makes you emotional? Are you open with your tears?
Yes! I cried at First Dates the other day because there’s that genuine thing that people like each other, there’s hope – I used to get upset watching Blind Date because they never got on. I once cried watching Strictly [laughs] when they were dancing to Jar Of Hearts – the lyrics just got to me.

Honey is out on 29 April on Virgin EMI. Katy will headline Brixton Academy on 14 May

Photography: Katherine Rose/Guardian Syndication, Getty Images

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Helen Bownass